Sri Lanka has it all. Watch whales off palm-fringed beaches, track leopards in lush rainforests and hike through the hill country to verdant tea plantations. You can get an insight into the island’s culture by exploring Buddhist monuments, clambering over colonial forts and indulging in its intensely flavoured cuisine. With such a wealth of attractions, figuring out where to go in Sri Lanka can be quite a task, although its relatively small size means you can fit a lot into a single trip.
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We’ve covered the length and breadth of the island to uncover the best places to go in Sri Lanka – from the popular to those off the beaten track.
West coast of Sri Lanka
All visits to Sri Lanka currently begin at the international airport just outside Colombo, the island’s capital and far and away its largest city. It’s a sprawling metropolis whose contrasting districts offer an absorbing introduction to Sri Lanka’s myriad cultures and multi-layered history.
Many visitors head straight for one of the west coast’s beaches, whose innumerable resort hotels still power the country’s tourist industry. Destinations include the package holiday resorts of Negombo and Beruwala, the more stylish Bentota, and the old hippy hangout of Hikkaduwa.
More unspoilt countryside can be found north of Colombo at the Kalpitiya peninsula and in the vast Wilpattu National Park nearby, home to leopards, elephants and sloth bears.
Idyllic Bentota © slava296/Shutterstock
Best places to visit on the west coast
- Fort Explore the beautifully restored and revitalized streets of Colombo’s historic colonial centre.
- The Pettah Colombo’s absorbing bazaar district, stuffed full of every conceivable type of merchandise, from mobile phones to Ayurvedic herbs.
- Kalpitiya peninsula Breezy Kalpitiya boasts superb dolphin-watching, beautiful beaches and lagoons, colonial remains, eco-lodges and some of Asia’s finest kitesurfing.
- Wilpattu National Park One of the island’s finest national parks, home to significant populations of leopards, elephants and sloth bears.
- Bentota With an idyllic sandy beach and a string of elegant small-scale hotels, the southern end of Bentota offers an oasis of style and tranquillity among the brash west-coast package resorts.
- Hikkaduwa Popular backpacker hangout, with good surfing, snorkelling and diving, and one of the liveliest beach scenes anywhere on the coast.
South coast of Sri Lanka
Beyond Hikkaduwa, the south coast is significantly less developed. Gateway to the region is the marvellous old Dutch city of Galle, Sri Lanka’s finest colonial town. Beyond lies a string of fine beaches. These include the ever-expanding village of Unawatuna and the quieter stretches of coast at Weligama, Mirissa and Tangalla, as well as the lively provincial capital of Matara, boasting further Dutch remains. East of here, Tissamaharama serves as a convenient base for the outstanding Yala and Bundala national parks, and for the fascinating temple town of Kataragama.
Aerial view of Galle ©samuraisunshine/Shutterstock
Best places to visit on the south coast
- Galle Sri Lanka’s most perfectly preserved colonial town, its time-warped streets lined with historic Dutch-colonial villas hidden behind formidable ramparts.
- Unawatuna Crash out on the wide, wave-lapped sands of buzzy Unawatuna Bay, popular with younger travellers and home to a good selection of restaurants and bars.
- Weligama The gentle sandy-bottomed surf breaks off Weligama’s wide bay are ideal for beginner board riding.
- Whale-watching, Mirissa Mirissa’s picturesque harbour is the jumping-off point for exhilarating boat trips to see one of Sri Lanka’s biggest attractions: blue whales.
- Mulkirigala Absorbing sequence of richly decorated cave temples carved into the flanks of a spectacular rock outcrop.
- Yala National Park Sri Lanka’s foremost national park, with marvellous scenery and abundant wildlife, from peacocks to leopards.
- Kataragama Join the crowds for the evening puja at Kataragama, one of Sri Lanka’s most vibrant religious spectacles, at a shrine held sacred by Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims alike.
The hill country
Inland from Colombo rise the verdant highlands of the hill country, enveloped in the tea plantations (first introduced by the British) which still play a vital role in the island’s economy. The symbolic heart of the region is Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second city and the cultural capital of the Sinhalese. Its colourful traditions are embodied by the famous Temple of the Tooth and the magnificent Esala Perahera, Sri Lanka’s most colourful festival.
South of here, close to the highest point of the island, lies the old British town of Nuwara Eliya, centre of the country’s tea industry and a convenient base for visits to the spectacular Horton Plains National Park. A string of towns and villages – Ella, Haputale and Bandarawela – along the southern edge of the hill country offer an appealing mixture of magnificent views, wonderful walks and olde-worlde British colonial charm. Close to the hill country’s southwestern edge, the soaring summit of Adam’s Peak is another of the island’s major pilgrimage sites. The gem-mining centre of Ratnapura to the south serves as the best starting point for visits to the elephant-rich Uda Walawe National Park and the rare tropical rainforest of Sinharaja.
Hill country near Ella © SJ Travel Photo and Video/Shutterstock
Best places to visit in the hill country
- Kandy Hidden away amid the beautiful central highlands, Sri Lanka’s second city and cultural capital is a vibrant showcase of traditional Sinhalese art, architecture and crafts.
- Esala Perahera, Kandy The island’s most spectacular festival, with immense processions of drummers, dancers and richly caparisoned elephants.
- Kandyan dancing Watch lavishly costumed dancers performing to an accompaniment of explosively energetic drumming.
- Horton Plains and World’s End Hike across the uplands of Horton Plains to the vertiginous cliffs of World’s End, which plunge sheer for almost a kilometre to the plains below.
- Adam’s Peak The classic Sri Lankan pilgrimage, climbing to the summit of one of the island’s most spectacular mountains.
- Ella The island’s most beautifully situated village, with superb views and country walks.
- Sinharaja This unique tract of undisturbed tropical rainforest is a botanical treasure trove of global significance.
The Cultural Triangle
North of Kandy, the hill country tumbles down into the arid plains of the northern dry zone. This area, known as the Cultural Triangle, was the location of Sri Lanka’s first great civilization, and its extraordinary scatter of ruined palaces, temples and dagobas still give a compelling sense of this glorious past. Foremost amongst these are the fascinating ruined cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, the marvellous cave temples of Dambulla, the hilltop shrines and dagobas of Mihintale and the extraordinary rock citadel of Sigiriya.
One of Sri Lanka’s most popular and interesting nature reserves, Minneriya National Park, also lies within the region and on the route for the hundreds of elephants that migrate between various parks each year.
The Golden Temple at Dambulla © SamanWeeratunga/Shutterstock
Best places to visit in the Cultural Triangle
- Rock temples, Dambulla An extraordinary Aladdin’s cave of Buddhist art, packed with hundreds of statues and decorated with the finest murals in the country.
- Sigiriya The spectacular rock outcrop of Sigiriya was the site of Sri Lanka’s most remarkable royal capital and palace, complete with water gardens, paintings of celestial nymphs and 1300-year-old graffiti.
- “The Gathering”, Minneriya National Park Asia’s largest gathering of wild elephants, as three-hundred-plus pachyderms congregate around the retreating waters of Minneriya Tank during the northern dry season.
- Polonnaruwa Home to some of Sri Lanka’s finest ancient stupas and shrines, dating back to its brief but brilliant period as the island’s capital.
- Anuradhapura The remains of the vast ancient city of Anuradhapura are one of the island’s most compelling historical sites. It’s also a major place of Buddhist pilgrimage.
- Mihintale Revered as the place where Buddhism was introduced to the island, Mihintale boasts an interesting collection of religious monuments scattered across a beautiful hilltop location.
The east and the north
Gateway to the east is the characterful, if war-torn, city of Trincomalee. The east’s huge swathe of pristine coastline itself remains almost completely undeveloped, save for the sleepy villages of Nilaveli and Uppuveli, just north of Trinco, and the surfing centre of Arugam Bay, at the east coast’s southern end. But the construction of a huge new resort at Passekudah is likely to change that.
If you’re looking where to visit in Sri Lanka that’s even less visited, the north is slowly emerging after years of civil war. Increasing numbers of visitors are making the long journey to the absorbing city of Jaffna, while a side-trip to remote Mannar, closer to India than Colombo, is another adventurous possibility.
Mannar donkeys at Kalpitiya beach © PACO COMO/Shutterstock
Best places to visit in the east and the north
- Trincomalee Founded around one of the world’s finest deep-water harbours, bustling Trinco boasts a lovely coastal setting, a fine colonial fort and an absorbing mixture of Hindu, Muslim and Christian traditions.
- Batticaloa Wrapped in a labyrinth of maze-like waterways, historic Batticaloa is home to a venerable Dutch fort, time-warped colonial churches and deserted beaches.
- Arugam Bay The east coast’s most appealing beach hangout, with quirky cabanas, mangrove-fringed lagoons and world-class surfing.
- Mannar Wander with wild ponies, scout for rare Indian bird species and kitesurf amongst the islets of Adam’s Bridge at this magical and little-visited island.
- Jaffna Quite unlike anywhere else on the island, the vibrant city of Jaffna offers a fascinating insight into Sri Lankan Tamil culture, as well as many reminders of its colonial and civil war history.
- Jaffna Peninsula The fertile Jaffna peninsula is home to myriad contrasting sights, from desert dunes and sacred springs to ancient dagobas and war-torn temples.
- The islands Splintering off the tip of the Jaffna Peninsula, the starkly beautiful islands of Kayts, Karaitivu, Nainativu and Delft are home to remote Hindu temples, colonial forts and remote beaches.
Top image: Aerial view of Galle in Sri Lanka ©samuraisunshine/Shutterstock